UCLA takes step back with loss

PASADENA -- After fighting back the entire second half Saturday night, Jim Mora was done fighting as he walked off the field following UCLA's 38-33 loss to Arizona State.

UCLA's second-year coach had been unimpressed following the Bruins' previous two losses this season on the road to Stanford and Oregon. He talked about not being satisfied with just being close to beating the two teams that had become the class of the Pac-12 Conference, and how UCLA was about bigger and better things than that.

Saturday was the first step toward those bigger and better things. It was an opportunity for the Bruins to control their own destiny in winning the Pac-12 South and playing in the Pac-12 championship game. They didn't have to go on the road and beat a top-five team to make it happen. They had to beat a team ranked lower than them at home, and they couldn't do it.

Not only could they not do it, they showed up late to the fight, falling behind 35-13 at halftime before making it a game in the second half.

The comeback bid ultimately fell short, as did UCLA's bid to win the Pac-12 South and play in the conference championship game for the third straight season. Instead, the Bruins were forced to watch Sun Devils players celebrate on their field and in front of their fans behind the north end zone.

Mora could have lit into his team for the missed opportunity and for taking a step back on a night when they could have taken two steps forward, but he didn't.

That wouldn't have changed the result and the reality of what had happened.

No, Saturday wasn't a night for one of Mora's rants. It was a time for him to take a step back with his team and appreciate what they had done during a time when few outside of their locker room would.

It was time for him to remember how they came together after the tragic death of walk-on wide receiver Nick Pasquale, who was hit and killed by a car in September.

It was time for him to remember how they had come back from 21-3 down in Nebraska after Pasquale's death and beat the Huskers.

It was time for him to remember that the players in his locker room had formed a bond stronger than any team he'd ever coached, and that bond wasn't about to break after their only home loss of the season.

"This is no cliché when I sit here and tell you how proud I am of those guys," Mora said. "When you think of their year and what they've been through and what they've overcome, starting with the loss of a teammate and battling the way that they have: There's something growing around here that's going to be special. It's not there yet, but it's growing. I'm proud of them. I'm honored to be their coach. I'm lucky to be the coach at UCLA. I'm excited about the future of this program."

As excited as Mora is about the future of the program, Saturday's game was another reminder of how far the Bruins are from where he envisions them being in the near future. Not only did UCLA lose, but in the Bruins' last and biggest home game of the season, there were more than 20,000 empty seats at the Rose Bowl. A program shouldn't be judged by the number of fans in the stands, but after the season the Bruins have had, they probably deserved a better home finale on and off the field than the one they got.

If anything, there should have been a strong contingent of USC fans at the game pulling for their rivals.

UCLA and USC fans don't agree on much. Their rivalry is so intense that this week both schools will duct tape, cover, box up and guard statues on both campuses to prevent their rivals from violating them with opposing team colors.

But for about three hours on Saturday, they came together for a rare moment when the entire city of Los Angeles, Bruins and Trojans, pulled for UCLA to beat Arizona State.

A Bruins win would not only have kept USC's hope of winning the Pac-12 alive, but put the Trojans in position to amazingly host the Pac-12 championship game in two weeks. A UCLA win, of course, would have also put the Bruins in position to win the division.

In the end, Arizona State dashed both of their dreams and laid claim to being the best team in Los Angeles before USC and UCLA actually play each other on Saturday at the Coliseum for that honor.

"We came up short tonight, but the fight that we exhibited, that's what we're going to grow from and that's what we're going to build from," Mora said. "You can be skeptical, and that's coach speak and all, that but I believe that. That's what I believe. That's what we're going to emphasize. It's a bitterly disappointed locker room. We're trying to get a shot at the title again, but we came up short. There's no way around it, but we're going to grow from it like everything we've been through this year. We're going to get stronger from it, and this program is going to get stronger from it."

Next Saturday's game against USC will play a big role in the trajectory of both programs heading into the offseason. It's a game that will either give the Bruins their first win at the Coliseum and first consecutive wins in the series in 16 years, or be another step back for a program that is building toward something greater.

"I hate to lose, but I see toughness," Mora said. "I see grit, I see determination, I see perseverance around here, and I think that's what you build a program on. I think that's what you want your culture to be about, and I think that's what this culture is becoming about. We're not there yet, but we're getting it and we're figuring it out."